Plato's Republic and Shakespeare's Rome: A Political Study of the Roman Works

Plato's Republic and Shakespeare's Rome: A Political Study of the Roman Works

Plato's Republic and Shakespeare's Rome: A Political Study of the Roman Works

Plato's Republic and Shakespeare's Rome: A Political Study of the Roman Works

Synopsis

This pioneering study argues the influence of Plato's political thought on Shakespeare's Roman works: The Rape of Lucrece, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus. It contends that Plato's theory of constitutional decline provides the philosophical core of these works; that Lucrece, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra form a 'Platonic' tetralogy collectively spanning the stages of timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny; that this decline is prefigured and encapsulated in Titus Andronicus; and that all five works are oblique commentaries on England's political milieu. Shakespeare equates the ruin of Rome with what he foresees as the corresponding decline of England deriving from England's kindred political ills, in particular the burgeoning democratic impulses fostered by the politics of both Elizabeth and James--impulses potentially leading to popular rule and the ruin of the state.

Excerpt

Actors, Hamlet tells Polonius, [are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time] (2.2.524). In his ensuing instructions to the players, Hamlet famously elaborates the concept: [the purpose of playing … is to hold … the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure] (3.2.20–24). He accordingly proposes to stage The Murder of Gonzago—[the image of a murder done in Vienna] (3.2.236), which images an actual crime committed in Urbino as well as the murder of Hamlet's father in Denmark—in order to [catch the conscience of the King] (2.2.606). At the heart of these passages are two commonplace and interrelated English Renaissance practices. The first is the use of drama as a vehicle for political criticism or counsel; Hamlet's referentially unspecific [King] alludes not only to Claudius but also to the reigning English monarch who may be similarly engaged in viewing this [mirror] of his time (here, Hamlet) and, very likely, of his policies. The second practice, implicit in the first, is the use of history to gloss contemporary political issues, thereby to [catch] the royal conscience and induce reform in policies deemed pernicious to the state. On the public stage, history served a similar function: to mold—likewise in the national interest—popular opinion and behavior. Both practices inform the five works in this study.

The politicization of history was a primarily Renaissance phenomenon. The Augustinian view of history, which dominated the Middle Ages, posited history as linear, providential, and universal, a sequence of irreversible, nonrecurring events that began with the Creation and ended with the Last Judgment. Progress was measured . . .

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